Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate
December 25, 2008
In Jackson Hole, when they talk about being “back in the box” it doesn’t mean what you might think.
They’re likely referring to the new tram, the tram that everyone’s been waiting two years for, the one with the $32 million price tag and the fancy paint job and the fast easy connection it provides from the base to the summit, clearing over 4,100 vertical feet in just nine minutes.
So “The return of Big Red” is cause for major celebration. And trust me when I tell you they go big up there in every way, and this event is no exception.
I’ve been going to Jackson every winter for more than 10 years and am always struck by how small the place makes me feel, how insignificant and weak and always a little bit afraid. It’s not just about the magnitude of that mountain or the untamable terrain or the severity of its climate or the locals who are shaped by all those factors, but the intensity of the energy there. Maybe you feel it the first time you get out at the top of the tram and find yourself standing on the summit of Rendezvous Bowl during a whiteout in gale-force winds and subzero temperatures. Or maybe you get spanked when an untracked section of Casper Bowl sucks you into a cliff area because you’re too stupid to realize why there are no tracks there in the first place.
But there’s this heavy vibe that’s palpable. It reminds me of the North Shore of Oahu or even those small towns in Alaska, places where big waves and big mountains don’t leave much room for forgiveness. It’s a place where nature gets in your face and stays there, even after you learn to respect it.
I lived in Jackson for one season and lasted three months until I’d run out of money, turned into an alcoholic danger slut, enjoyed more powder days than I could count and realized I was definitely, totally out of my league.
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So I shouldn’t be surprised when Santa is the first one to get back in the box last Friday night, only to repel out of it suspended 100 feet over a crowd of 2,000 people.
Never mind that it’s 12 below zero, the kind of cold that requires concentration to withstand. Don’t ask me why there are dozens of kids running around, sliding in the snow and yelling and playing like it’s the middle of summer at some public pool, their parents seemingly oblivious to little things like frostbite and hypothermia. Of course there is a live band and a Jumbotron and people huddled in groups wearing inflated-looking puffy down coats toting PBR tall boys in mitten-clad hands.
Huge speakers blast “Back in Black” as the tram is unveiled. The crowd roars, raising their beers and shaking their fists and pelting the new car with snowballs as it slowly hovers overhead like some futuristic spacecraft, slowly making its way into the brand new docking station, leaving the crowd with nothing to do but head to the bars.
Without the tram it took four lifts and more than an hour to get to the top, a fact the locals just sort of accepted, the way someone might still pretend to love a family member even after they’ve committed a felony. So the true celebration takes place the following morning when the Porsche of trams whisks 100 people at a time up the 4,139-foot mountain in just under nine minutes, about four minutes faster than the old one did.
“It’s good to be back in the box, spinning hot laps on Big Red,” said Rick Armstrong, a world-renowned ski mountaineer who I never got around to sleeping with, probably because he was married.
Let me be the first one to tell you that “hot lapping Big Red” seriously takes it out of you, especially when it’s so cold you have to wear your down jacket as a layer. But the whole going big thing doesn’t stop on the mountain.
It continues into apres, too, a tour of duty that begins at the Village Cafe and then onto the Mangy Moose and ends at one of those kitschy Euro places where they act like it’s Austria and not Wyoming so we can drink these horrifying shots of some kind of liquor that’s so strong you can taste it when you exhale.
But apres never really ends. It turns into dinner and dinner turns into a very late night with a very cute boy whose stuffy nose and drunken slumber result in a snore that’s deep and loud, like a pug or maybe a bulldog or even a pig, varying in volume and intensity so I can never really block it out, so sleep is never really an option.
I lay awake in bed with Pug Boy beside me thinking about how tired I am and how tired I will be when the whole process starts over again the next day because it always does. Because one big day tends to lead right into the next, and the next, until your perception of big changes completely, but only once you realize how small you really are in it.
The day I leave it snows 16 inches and I feel tears stinging the back of my eyelids as we pack the car. I’m like a little kid who doesn’t want to leave home. But my comp ticket is expired and the free condo stay is done and I know it’s time to go even though every cell in my being screams otherwise.
There will be other powder days, I tell myself. This place isn’t going anywhere. I’ll come back again soon.
But that’s not the point. Passion comes from knowing the moment can’t last, just like my affair with Jackson. I realize the time has come for me to step out of the box.
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